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The Label Is Not the Object

The label is also not the surface, nor the entity, nor [insert appropriate term].

Here’s another map-territory relationship that I’ve been thinking about: Labels and objects. The function of a label is to set expectations. It tells you how you’re supposed to think about whatever underlying thing it has been applied to.

Often this is banal, as with a drawer labeled “forks.” There is no need to devote mental processing power to the full complexity of each multi-pronged implement.

Labels on humans deserve more scrutiny.

Personally, I’ve always been a sucker for categorizing myself. Myers-Briggs (I’m a consistent INTJ), the political compass (I wander around the lower middle), etc. I know that aside from the Big Five, these designation systems don’t mean much. But they’re fun! And comforting, because I can feel like I’ve situated myself relative to other people.

Labels become unwieldy when you fluctuate between multiple categories or when you would need a Venn diagram to properly lay out your position. Think of the hyphenated Ethnicity-or-Country-of-Origin-American — manageable, but awkward.

For a while I described myself as a “cynical optimist” (yes, this coincided with my arguing-about-religion phase). It was cheesy, but I was trying to encapsulate the blend of sardonic and sunny that I wanted to project.

Now I have a hard time summing up my political views. Left-libertarian? Neoliberal? Socially liberal, fiscally conservative, but jkjk I’m only fiscally conservative in a selective way? It’s harder now than it used to be, since I’ve learned to be far more uncertain about any given policy choice. (Generally speaking, I believe in markets and competition, but the implementation details are hard to work out.)

Paul Graham wrote in 2009:

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity [because disagreement feels like a personal attack]. By definition they’re partisan. […] If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

Graham concluded, “The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.”

What I like most about Graham’s framing is that it puts you in charge of your identity. Your identity isn’t something that happens to you, imposed by the rest of the world, but something that wells up out of you and is displayed to the world. It’s your job to filter and shape it.

My friend Way Spurr-Chen wrote wrote a lovely, encouraging essay two years ago about the process of identity self-management:

If you think about integrating a new sense of self as simply moving from one place towards another place, it seems less daunting. You can always go back to where you were before (and I don't know about you, but I reverse my improvements all the time). Instead of being a daunting undertaking, you can turn your identity goals into a sort of play. Why not explore (metaphorically and literally) different parts of your potential? Why not see how you regard yourself when you have certain identity traits?

Circling back to labels: They have a tendency to stay stuck. You might end up adding spoons to your fork drawer but never switching out the label for a new one that says “silverware.” And then guests get confused looking for spoons.

Is it necessary to label yourself? Probably not, if you’re the sort of person who can mentally avoid it. (I’m not.) Other people will continue categorizing you regardless — there’s no escaping that. I suppose thoughtful, self-applied labels can be a kind of defensive maneuver.


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Ambivalence on Technocracy

I really have a knack for clickbait titles, don't I?

Hello hello! The weather is emphatically swinging into spring here in the SF Bay Area. Cheery sunshine = I feel cheery too. One of my friends delivered a lamb for the first time today, which is amazing 🐑

My last email to you was about livestreaming. In retrospect, that post was vapid and undershot my standards for Sonya Notes. Editorial quality will hopefully improve as I continue to iterate, and I appreciate your patience so far!

Granted, I originally pitched Sonya Notes as an experimental newsletter. Experiments often yield dumb results, so I don’t feel too guilty.

I’ve been sitting on the following post for a while, trying to get it where I want it.


“I marveled at how the flow of people through security screening looked like a time-lapse factory film.” Photo by Melissa Gutierrez.


Two of my favorite heuristics conflict with each other:

  1. Competitive markets solve most problems on their own. (The largest exceptions are externalities and physical monopolies.) Market participants should be free to express their preferences and create an emergent equilibrium, instead being subject to an authority that tries to engineer specific results.

  2. Any given member of the general public is a moron with no proper idea of what is good for them or anyone else. (See also: Cipolla’s laws of stupidity and Hanlon’s razor.)

#1 is a libertarian idea and #2 is a progressive idea (at least according to early American progressivism or perhaps High Modernism). #1 is bottom-up improvement of society and #2 is top-down improvement of society.

It’s worth noting that I phrased #1 as optimistic and #2 as cynical. (I used to go around defining myself as a “cynical optimist” like Bryan Caplan. Still pretty accurate: I’m cynical about human nature and optimistic about technology.)

The conflict between the heuristics is okay, as long as I’m aware of it. Heuristics need to be useful cognitive shortcuts more than they need to be completely accurate in all scenarios.

Despite my politics being laissez-faire overall, I have a soft spot for paternalistic technocracy. I think mixing the two yields a basically functional government. The current American system is too hands-off in some ways, but mostly far too interventionist (in the lives of its citizens, but also in the affairs of foreign countries).

I like how Redditor darwin2500 put it, with flipped rhetoric:

[P]ersonal responsibility is often a great idea for giving an individual one-on-one advice to improve their life, and is usually a terrible credo for public policy debates and political activism.

A society without both personal-level and systems-based vigilance and improvements will ultimately fail. You can’t only focus on one and not the other.

I tend to say that “anything gov’t touches is so routinely dysfunctional that we should only delegate issues that can’t be handled any other way” — in other words, minimum viable government. I would be a minarchist if minarchism accounted for social safety nets.

The soul of libertarianism is “everyone gets to do whatever they want unless they’re directly harming someone else,” for a pretty narrow definition of direct harm. (Yes, it has failure modes.) I find that very appealing, as a person who chafes under authority.

The soul of progressivism is “we need to take care of everyone and here’s how,” with a very strong desire for rules and behavior-shaping.


I don’t have a neat conclusion, so I’ll end with this quote about populism, which I recoil from, excerpted from an essay called “The Ignoble Lie”:

The uprising among the working classes across the developed West arises from a perception of illegitimacy — of a gap between claims of the ruling class and reality as experienced by those who are ruled. It is no coincidence that these rebellions come from the socialist left and authoritarian right, two positions that now share opposition to state capitalism, a managerial ruling class, the financialization of the economy, and globalization.

See also: “The Twin Insurgency” by Nils Gilman.


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Performing the Real-Time Self

Talk the talk, even in front of everyone else.

I have thoughts on ~identity~ and ~politics~ that will reach your inbox soon. For now, let’s discuss livestreaming.


Artwork by Katherine Vinogradov.


I’ve created precisely two livestreams so far. Don’t expect me to stop! My once-defunct YouTube channel is supposed to be ready for action within a day or two.

Livestreaming eligibility is not instantaneous on YouTube, because why should anything be easy or straightforward. During the meantime I can take advantage of Twitter’s native Periscope integration.

What I enjoy about livestreaming is that it feels like a casual chat among friends. Actually livestreaming doesn’t just “feel like” that, it is that. My internet friends are the ones who show up to watch and interact.

A handful of people have told me that I should start a podcast. Maybe I will? When I appeared on The Paradox Project and The Menu Bar, the responses were more positive than negative. Aaand my SO might agree to chatter with me (although only with his real name concealed).

Talking is hard. You gotta be charming and coherent at the same time.


If you want to reply, please use the email address me@sonyaellenmann.com. Substack’s newsletter software is in beta and doesn’t do it automatically. Sorry about the inconvenience!

Filters, Funnels

Gotta restrict the inflow somehow.

Alert: It has come to my attention that Substack is not yet equipped to direct your replies straight to my inbox. Instead, they land in a general inbox and have to be manually forwarded to me. Yes, this is annoying. Anyway, sorry for not replying to your replies, I haven’t been intentionally ignoring you!

And now, our feature presentation…


Photo by Serge Bystro.


Thinkin’ bout selection effects. In particular, adverse selection. The concept has been on my mind since February, brought top-of-mind by this Twitter exchange:

Sonya 🌐 Mann@sonyaellenmann

Toying around with an idea: Public "office hours" that anyone can drop in on. Whoever showed up could pitch me on a story, have a casual conversation, whatever. It'd probably be located at a coffee shop in SOMA. Thoughts?

February 7, 2018
Kyle Russell 🚀@kylebrussell

I've tried to do something similar to meet with founders on weekends near my apartment. Potential problem is adverse selection: only people without important/interesting things taking you up on it

February 7, 2018
See also: Siderea’s “asshole filter,” summed up by Reddit user Kinrany as “issuing a rule and not enforcing it can lead to encouraging people to break the rule and offending people who don’t want to break the rule.”

Some industries have adverse selection effects. Journalism, for instance (writes the myopic journalist, obsessed with her dysfunctional industry). There’s a half-joke among reporters that you don’t go into media if you’re able to do anything else. And it’s true — if you have any common sense, along with the ability to put up with sycophantic corporate nonsense, then you’ll go make more money in PR or marketing.

It’s similar to the saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” Those who can’t do, chronicle.

But of course there’s an “on the other hand.” The terribleness of journalism, as much as it repels competent professionals, also filters for people who are really passionate about reporting. (Plus those of us, myself included, who have a bizarre craving for attention from strangers.)


Photo by neeel.


If you want to reply, please use the email address me@sonyaellenmann.com. Substack will not do this automatically. Sorry about the inconvenience!

Perception, Possession

To have and to hold, cogito ergo sum.

The map is not the territory, as they say. A map (and there are various kinds) is an interpretative layer on top of some underlying substance. It would be hard to handle the world without maps, but they are necessarily reductive. As I wrote in 2016:

[N]o map is a 1:1 representation of reality — that would be a duplicate, or a simulation. Rather, our maps give us heuristics for interpreting the lay of the land, so to speak, and rules for how to react to what we encounter. Maps are produced by fallible humans, so they contain inaccuracies. Often they don’t handle edge cases well (or at all).

Nevertheless, I like mental models [which are one of the types of maps]. They cut through all the epistemological bullshit. Instead of optimizing a mental model to be true, you optimize it to be useful. An effective mental model is one that helps you be, well, more effective.

Although the map is not the territory, and we recognize this, a map can still dictate how the territory is perceived. How it is navigated. Which features of the terrain are considered salient. Maps are powerful and people vie for control of the ones that they consider influential. (Consider the recent kerfuffle over a certain New York newspaper’s op-ed section.)


Artwork by Ganesha Balunsat.


Of course, you can diverge from a given map, or improve it, or substitute a new one. But even switching between existing maps is difficult and can take time, although in my experience it’s possible to develop multi-map skills.

The LessWrong wiki points out that because the map is not the territory, manipulating the map only affects the map. “If you change what you believe about an object, that is a change in the pattern of neurons in your brain. The real object will not change because of this edit.”

However: “The map is a separate object from the territory and the map exists as an object inside the territory.” For example, your thoughts and ideas about yourself are created within — are even created by! — the entity that they attempt to understand. It gets recursive very quickly.

There is no requirement that you perceive the world as it is. I’d go as far as saying that accurate world-perception is 1) a nightmare to judge one way or the other, since any judgment would be subjective, and 2) not intrinsically noble.

You can post-process your raw intake into whatever form is most useful to you. In fact, your brain already does post-processing automatically, from the sensory level on upward. When its output is particularly debilitating, we turn to medication or suggest cognitive behavioral therapy. Thus the “meme yourself into X” concept.

Seeking and synthesizing meaning from whatever chaotic milieu you occupy is a way to own the world. (I find it immensely satisfying.) There’s a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s masterful Blood Meridian:

Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.

In the context of Blood Meridian the idea is dark, because that’s the nature of the novel. But in the context of our lives, I think knowledge-based dominion is an empowering concept.

You cannot rule the world. Or even if you can, it won’t stop you from becoming Ozymandias. We all meet his fate, on varying levels of grandeur. But you can bring the world into yourself and command its tulpa to do your bidding.

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